Star Trek Beyond review: A not very special episode

An excellent TV installment makes for one uneven action movie

Star Trek Beyond, at its best, is a fun episode of television.

That’s a problem when you’ve paid for a blockbuster film, especially when the focus is on the action, not the conversations and politics smaller-scale Trek properties are best known for.

That's despite Star Trek Beyond's self-awareness of its episodic roots, which is evident from the get-go. Following the events of 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness, we reunite with the crew of the Enterprise, led by a graying Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, embracing his inner Shatner). Three years into a five-year mission, Kirk catches us up on what's been going on with the crew. It's a quick recap that Kirk summarizes in one lampshading quote: "Things have started to feel a little episodic."

They only become moreso as the movie struggles to get its bearings and find a plot. An alien threat infiltrates the Enterprise as it travels into uncharted territory, and its leader, Krall, is after an ancient weapon that has accidentally come into Kirk's possession. Instead of giving it up, the Captain and his crew quickly wind up in intergalactic warfare that ends with them crash landing on a foreign planet.

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After that, the story beats are familiar: The split up crew aims to reunite, recover the item and, eventually, save the galaxy from potential doom. It's not an exciting story by any means, but what the Star Trek franchise lacks in excitement, it makes up for in a likable cast of characters.

Star Trek Beyond embraces its origins as a silly half-hour drama, sending the crew in different directions and configurations so we can watch them play off each other. This gives us a chance to see them shine — or struggle — under familiar circumstances. It's a lot of fun watching Dr. "Bones" McCoy rib his longtime frenemy Commander Spock, and the rest of the cast never gets too serious.

The time we get to spend just hanging with the Starfleet crew is when Star Trek Beyond is most entertaining. Even the most casual Star Trek fan (like myself) knows the reformed lothario Kirk, the socially awkward Spock and the bumbling Scottie. Hanging out with them, luxuriating in their quirks and comic quips, helps to make the film enjoyable, not just watchable.

But "watchable" seems to be producer J.J. Abrams and director Justin Lin's modus operandi. They're not content just letting the characters relate to each other; this is an expensive sci-fi movie, after all. For every scene where Spock and McCoy have a human (in a manner of speaking) heart-to-heart about the Vulcan's relationships issues or despondence following his older self's death (a nod to Leonard Nimoy's passing during production), Star Trek Beyond has to throw a boring fight into the mix.

Lin may be regarded for the explosive Fast and Furious movies, but long, wordless shootouts can't live up to car chases. Few of these fights stand out as suspenseful or even memorable. Instead, they're devoid of personality, as characters push buttons to fire the Enterprise's weapons or silently punch and shoot their way out of danger.

The storyline is thin, and fights feel aimless

Worse, because the through line of "evil alien wants mystery item to blow up the world" is so thin and well-trodden, these scenes feel aimless. Kirk, Spock and the rest of Starfleet are going through the motions when pounding on Krall and his minions; there's nothing else driving the action past a feeling of genre requirement. The Big Bad barely registers as a threat or even a person of interest, especially in comparison to the colorful cast of heroes.

If Star Trek Beyond were an arc on a television show — CBS' upcoming Star Trek revival, for example — it would be a good time. It features lighthearted character moments and pleasant relationship-building, all of which would be welcome over the course of several weeks in a TV season.

But as a feature film, there's an expectation of CGI action that wows the crowd, and of a gripping story that leaves viewers anxious to see the sequel. Star Trek Beyond fails on those levels. Instead, it blandly goes where it's been before.